Have Phones And Social Media Destroyed Our In-Person, Real-Life Manners?

By the time we reach the end of this decade, grunting and live-action emoticons will likely be all we have left.

Apr 25, 2013 at 6:00pm | Leave a comment

I called it “The Do Better Guides.” The idea -- a hopeful campaign, really -- was me writing a series of mini books offering tips, tools and intel to help us all improve on those small things that build on each other to become more meaningful, important, bigger things. 
 
Things like: how to write a thank-you note; answer the phone like a professional; be a gracious host; not hold your cutlery like you’re playing an upright bass; and learn to use email like a reasonable adult. This was about formalities, yes, but also -- and more decisively -- it was about upgraded living, adding depth to our day-to-day through civility, kindness and grace.  
 
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My husband teaching my son how to shake hands. 



The project never really went beyond incubator stage (I still have the green folder with pages of organized notes). My creative attention was drawn elsewhere. But the other reason it ended up in the back of my mental file cabinet was pretty simple: I felt it wasn’t necessary.
 
After all, this was early 2006. It was a year before the first iPhone came out; Twitter was maybe a month old; and Facebook was still exclusively for college kids. People already knew all about this digital decorum stuff. Right? Wrong. 
 
Cut to today. Folks are walking into traffic and mall fountains because their eyes are glued to a small screen. I’ve lost count of the number of couples I’ve spied out at a restaurant sitting right across from each other, only a moody candle between them, and no one is talking. They both have their heads buried in their respective laps, fingering their phones.
 
And the intimate and wildly inappropriate details of strangers’ lives that I now know thanks to the yellular thing that just never went away -- Bluetooth headsets be damned! 
 
Online communication isn’t fairing too well either. According to a recent survey out of the UK, 78 percent of social media users say the rudeness levels have hit the virtual roof. Folks have fewer misgivings about throwing shade or virtual ’bows at someone, especially since you don’t have look them in the eye. Although, online beefs have crossed into the real world as well: one in five people surveyed admitted to cutting back on face-to-face with friends in “real life” after an online dust-up.  
 
Manners, be they in the digital or regular old analogue world, are dissolving daily. By the time we reach the end of this decade, grunting and live-action emoticons will likely be all we have left.
 
Last month, there were at least five different blog posts or articles that rained down on email and voicemail etiquette, but not in the way you might expect. These pieces posited that our digital salutations and sentiments and niceties were not only unnecessary and disruptive, but also kind of rude.
 
New York Times columnist Nick Bilton kicked over the powder keg with his post on how leaving a voicemail instead of simply texting someone is downright impolite. Bilton also threw asking for directions and saying “thank you” in an email into the how rude! fire.
 
Then Slate jumped in, beefing about the way folks sign off on emails. Best, Yours sincerely, xoxo – time to kill them all, the post said. They are outdated and annoying. 
 
Really, though? Are we that cranky and in such a collective rush that saying “hey” at the start of an email can actually be taken as an affront? The real world does not move at “Scandal” pace, friends. Let’s calm all the way down. 
 
You can write an email using full and proper spellings (C U 2mrw? Nope.). You can answer the phone with “Hello, Jane here,” instead of “Yeah” or -- truly the worst -- “Whut.” You can get a note card and use a pen to write a short string of words that express your gratitude for a kind gift or gesture. You can keep the phone in your purse or pocket instead of on the dinner table. (And, by the way, you don’t have to Instagram every. single. plate. that is set before you at said table.)
 
You don’t have to make everything Social Media Moment. You can occasionally pick up the phone -- or failing that -- Skype/FaceTime or send a personal email to a homey, talk to them like they’re your friends for real, because they are.
 
You can get off the phone when you’re interacting with other humans -- this includes cashiers, waiters and store clerks. You will never ever need to send that text while you’re driving. And there will never be a reason for you to use your speakerphone in shared spaces. You can do all of these simple things and still get on your grind, make that paper, find your truth, make it big, conquer the world, or whatever it is that is so very urgent.  
 
Then late last month, the NYT ran another story about digital etiquette. But this one was highlighting the rising need for “old-fashioned protocols” since smart phones and social media have basically slaughtered grace and kindness. (xoJane’s Jane was even quoted in the piece: “Nice is very cool right now.” Finally!)
 
The story -- in the Styles section, of course -- points to a glut of good-manners gurus elbowing their way into Gen Y’s rude, little lives. They are coming at you with books, blogs, and on You Tube. Listen, there’s even a video tutorial teaching people how to shake hands. Explosion fist bumps and bro-hugs are not the way to roll into that biz meeting, young one. 
 
It’s all a little hysterical -- both definitions.
 
On one hand, I’m snickering at the level to which we’ve devolved. This next generation of kids will be able to create an app over a quick kale smoothie lunch, but don’t know how to look you in the eye to talk about it. But then I think, maybe not. There are other adults and parents who also believe that propriety still has a place in this Jetsons world and we’ll teach, instill, educate, and the kids (and adults) will indeed be all right. 
 
Where do you stand on the manners front? Old fashioned or two-point-oh?